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Vince Cable: Beneath the halo

Vince Cable is hailed by right and left as a prophet who predicted the crisis. But is he quite the informed economist of repute? And what about his time at Shell?

 

Is there any politician in Britain more popular or acclaimed than the Honourable Vincent Cable, member of parliament for Twickenham, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, and Lib Dem shadow chancellor? Cable commands swooning adulation from left and right; he has been nicknamed Prophet Elijah for his supposed prescience in financial matters. A Guardian leader hailed him as "one of the classiest politicians . . . with the confidence of an informed economist". A Daily Mail editorial claimed he was the one political figure who, on this economic crisis, "has consistently outshone his opponents on both sides of the House". "How we need him as our prime minister!" exclaimed the paper's Tory-supporting columnist Peter Oborne. Yet what has Saint Vince done to deserve such praise and admiration? Is he really the nation's Cassandra, or have we simply succumbed to the cult of Cable?

That Vince Cable is a nice man is not in question. Nor can one doubt that he was proved right about the need to nationalise Northern Rock. And he has been correct to call for curbs on bank bonuses. But neither of these positions required him to look into a crystal ball, or actually prophesy the fall of Northern Rock in September 2007, or predict the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.

So where is the evidence of his omniscience? His supporters would point to the now famous intervention in the Commons in November 2003 when he asked the then chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown: "Is not the brutal truth that with investment, exports and manufacturing output stagnating or falling, the growth of the British economy is sustained by consumer spending pinned against record levels of personal debt, which is secured, if at all, against house prices that the Bank of England describes as well above equilibrium level?"

Brown dodged the question and accused Cable of spreading "alarm, without substance, about the state of the British economy".

That exchange is reprinted triumphally in full in The Storm: the World Economic Crisis and What It Means, Cable's bestseller about the financial crisis. In that same book, however, Cable concedes that Britain's "personal debt" did not, in and of itself, cause the crash. "The trigger for the current global financial crisis was the US mortgage market," he writes.

So the issue is, did the Lib Dem deputy leader have the foresight to draw our collective attention to this particular trigger before publishing his book this year? "No, I didn't. That's quite true," he told Dominic Lawson in a Sunday Times interview in March. "One of the problems of being a British MP," he said, "is that you do tend to get rather parochial and I haven't been to the States for years and years, so I wouldn't claim to have any feel for what's been going on there."

This is a rather strange admission, though honest, for a man who claims to have seen the crisis coming. Not quite the informed economist of media legend.

Then there is the matter of City regulation. It was, in the words of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, the "zeal for deregulation [that]set Britain up for a fall". Weak regulators allowed reckless bankers to take enormous risks with astounding sums of money. So one might have expected Cable the political prophet to have been arguing consistently for better, firmer and stronger regulation of the City from the outset.

On the contrary, in June 1999, speaking in a Commons debate on the Financial Services and Markets Bill, Cable endorsed "the liberal market"approach to the regulation of financial services. "No one," he said, "is arguing for an increasingly severe, more onerous and dirigiste system of regulation." Any regulation, he said, should be "done on a light-touch basis".

A decade on, once again with the benefit of hindsight, Cable calls for "radical safety measures" to be built in to a new regulatory architecture for the City. But this is too little too late. You cannot advocate light-touch regulation on the floor of the Commons but then, a decade later, pretend you were ahead of the curve in predicting the ensuing financial crash.

In fact, Cable's denunciations of the excesses of the free market ring hollow precisely because he is a robust free marketeer himself. Having defected from Labour to the Social Democrats in 1981, he is not a leftist. Rather, in the words of one backbench Liberal Democrat MP to whom I spoke, he is a "classic economic liberal". Cable was a prominent contributor in 2004 to the Lib Dems' pro-market Orange Book, which advocated introducing a US-style private health insurance scheme to replace the National Health Service. (Who says Daniel Hannan speaks for right-wing Tories only?)

At the time, the Lib Dem peer and former frontbencher Lord Greaves condemned Cable and his fellow contributors to the Orange Book as "pseudo-Blairites with little following in the wider party". Five years on, one Liberal Democrat frontbencher to whom I spoke told me: "People do regard Cable very well in the party, but among a tier of the party, and including among some of his parliamentary colleagues, he has remained less popular."

Why? Because on Cable's watch, the Lib Dems have lurched to the right, dropping their plans for a 50p-in-the-pound tax rate on high earners and committing, at their party conference in 2008, to combined tax and spending cuts - presumably in order to chase Tory votes at the next election and perhaps even prepare the ground for a coalition with the Conservatives in the event of a hung parliament.

In a pamphlet published in 2005, it was Cable, described to me by one of his frontbench colleagues as "clever and ambitious", who first intimated that the Lib Dems might drop their policy of "equidistance" between the two main parties. As he wrote, "If the pendulum swings, it may swing to a combination of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats."

Cable has strengthened his own support at the right end of the political spectrum by writing a regular column for the Mail on Sunday, in which he has railed against a "public-sector fat-cat culture" as well as the "writhing nest of quangos" - both, it is worth noting, Tory talking points. Interestingly, in the particular week in June when he issued his denunciation of public-sector "fat cats", he wrote a cover story for this magazine in which he attacked bankers' pay. Different audience, different message - the classic Liberal Democrat tactic.

Vince Cable was born in York in 1943, the son of a working-class Tory lecturer. He attended Nunthorpe Grammar School, and then read natural sciences and economics at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, completing a PhD in economics at Glasgow University. Before he entered parliament in 1997, Cable spent three decades as an economic adviser to organisations as varied as the Kenyan government, the think tank Chatham House and the World Bank. But perhaps the peak of his pre-political career was a two-year spell as chief economist for the oil giant Shell in the mid-1990s. In a fawning profile, the Guardian's Michael White wrote: "Please note that is not a job major multinational oil companies give to dumbos they want to shift out of accounts: it is proper work."

Proper work it ay be, but was it the kind of work that a self-described liberal and progressive should have been doing? Cable joined Shell in 1990; he was appointed chief economist in 1995, the same year as the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other leaders of the southern Nigerian Ogoni ethnic group were executed by the Sani Abacha military government. This was after a wave of state-sponsored violence in the south. In May, campaigners accused Shell before a court in New York of complicity in the violence in order to protect its oil interests. The following month, in an out-of-court settlement, Shell agreed to pay the victims' families $15.5m, but refused to accept legal responsibility for the nine deaths.

So has Cable ever spoken out against the firm? The journalist Mark Lynas, who interviewed Cable when he worked at Shell, remembers him as being deeply evasive and avoiding all questions about Saro-Wiwa. Lynas is astonished at Cable's transformation into Britain's favourite politician. "I don't know how anyone could have stayed at Shell during that period and slept at night," he told me. "Because of Shell, I've always questioned his judgement on human rights."

I asked Cable's spokeswoman if he would like to comment on Shell's payout to the victims' families. She told me that "he does not feel that he knows enough about the latest developments to be able to comment".

For a politician who has spoken of his desire to reconcile "economic liberalism with wider moral values and social justice", why the silence about his former employer and this shameful episode in its recent history? Campaigners in Britain and in Nigeria are outraged. "For a former high-ranking Shell official to parade himself as a progressive liberal smacks of rank opportunism and cynicism," Sanya Osha, author of a book on Ken Saro-Wiwa and Ogoniland, told me. "One can't take such a volte-face seriously." But perhaps he had no idea of what was going on in Shell's Nigerian operation? Osha disagrees. "I think it is inconceivable that a chief economist at Shell would be unaware of the activities of the [Nigerian] military regime in relation to the plight of the Ogoni people." Ben Amunwa of the Remember Saro-Wiwa project agrees: "I find it hard to believe that senior Shell staff were free of responsibility for what happened in Nigeria."

It is a sign of the easy ride that the national media give Cable that he has avoided any detailed examination of his time at Shell. These days, however, it is a little local difficulty that is in danger of tarnishing his national halo.

In his Twickenham constituency, Cable seems to be displaying the partisan posturing that has made voters so cynical about politicians - and the lack of leadership for which he once condemned Gordon Brown, comparing him to Mr Bean (a gag he borrowed, incidentally, from a Leo McKinstry column in the Express).

Richmond Council is determined to sell a popular riverside site in Twickenham that is home to a children's playground and a David Bellamy Award-winning garden - to property developers. In a local referendum, nine out of ten residents rejected the council's plans. Cable has said that "while I continue to have a high profile at a national level, I shall continue to be active as a local MP". But he has gone out of his way, campaigners say, to avoid commenting on the development and has failed to attend any meetings of Friends of Twickenham Riverside, a community group opposed to the proposed sell-off. A local reporter told me, "It's the biggest thing that's happened in Twickenham, and people feel he has abandoned them. He seems distracted by national, not local, issues."

“I represent Twickenham in parliament, not on the council," Cable has repeatedly told irate constituents - but residents point to several examples of their MP campaigning against the council when it was run by the Tories. Nowadays Richmond is Lib Dem-controlled.“He won't go against his own council," says Scott Naylor from the Friends of Riverside group. "He may have his national halo, but as a result of this, his local halo has fallen off." Julie Hill, owner of the David Bellamy community garden, says: "Vince Cable promised to 'kick up a fuss' over the council's plan . . . but when the time came, this was one media spotlight he didn't want to be in. World economics mean more to him than voters in his own backyard."

With the town's Conservative candidate trying to capitalise on the row, and with a Tory landslide expected next year, it would be a paradox if his local reputation cost this supposed soothsayer of the crash his place on the national stage.

Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) of the NS. Read his blog at www.newstatesman.com/blogs

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Where next?

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

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“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

***

Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

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Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

***

As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “Apple” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.